BOSNIA ON MY MIND
This is three stories in one, all of them centered on Bosnia, my birth land.
First, the title. I started using it for Power Point presentations of my book, Requiem for a Country: A History Lesson, ever since Angelina Jolie wrote and directed "In the Land of Blood and Honey," her own attempt to explain the causes of Bosnian genocides. I have tried to do that in The Last Exile in 2009 and again now in Requiem.
The second story actually started with Inga, a woman I had never met, and how she found me on the World Wide Web. She was born in Sarajevo, long after I had left it for the last time in 1946. She informed me she was a granddaughter of my paternal aunt, Erna, who had eloped with a Catholic man in 1938, a coincidence that played a role in her survival through World War II pogroms in the city.
It was the summer of 2010, and Inga had come upon my book, The Last Exile, on the Web. She sent me an email: Was I the son of a Mihael Levi, who had a sister Erna, her grandmother, in Sarajevo? We started exchanging pictures, memories and family history.
From Inga, I learned how the breakup of Yugoslavia showed that Tito’s regime wasn’t what its detractors had made it out to be. Bosnians, she reported, were not all that happy with the results of their “liberation” from the Federation he had built out of the ashes of the old Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Thievery was a sore point. Some people were getting filthy rich while the majority was falling into greater poverty. “We weren’t rich under Tito,” she said, “but everybody was pulling the cart in equal measure.”
The balkanization of Yugoslavia in the 1990s resulted in the independence of the former Yugoslav republics from each other, but also in a drastic lowering of the standard of living, accompanied by rampant corruption, in most of them.
And this is the third part of the story: A proof that this is not just a subjective, biased opinion from the rafters. It came in a book I came across, In a Bosnian Trench: A Wartime Memoir of a Muslim Bosnian Soldier, by Elvir Kulin, who wrote:
After Tito's death, the economy in Bosnia worsened partly because of the corruption of political leaders and partly because of the cutback of social programs. Those cutbacks were demanded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which loaned Yugoslavia money. It was difficult to raise children and pay for food and school. You could feel the tension in the people. Unemployment was high. Nationalist politicians, who were replacing the Communist officials, blamed the poor economy on rival ethnic and religious groups.
These rival groups, taking their medieval revenge for fratricidal killings in the distant past, engaged in one of the worst genocides since the massacres of Armenians by the Turks after WWI and of Jews by the Germans during WWII.
To better illustrate my presentations about Bosnia, I asked Inga to send me some "before and after" photographs of Sarajevo, before and after Tito was gone, and before and after the internecine killings. Some of them were of the Sarajevo 1984 Winter Olympics. The contrast was striking.
People lived well. Tito wasn't a dictator in the real meaning of the word. Yugoslavia had respect, and we who traveled abroad with the ‘scarlet passport’ saw it.
Then, we lived; today, we survive. There is no more that middle class. Today there are more mendicants and homeless (there were none then); many more bad things are happening.
Today, some curse him, say that one didn't live well then. I lived very well, was middle class, traveled through Europe, went every year to the sea ... not today.
I had broken ties with Yugoslavia before it broke itself apart, but I couldn’t remain uninvolved in the renewed carnage and destruction of my hometown. Thus: "Bosnia on My Mind" and my review of my Bosnian past.
I served Tito's Yugoslavia from its inception in 1944 until I left 12 years later. I observed it from afar as Tito ruled for another 24 years until his death. To this day, people ask me how is it that I don’t hate him as they think he deserves to be hated. It happens at private parties, as well as when I present my books to the public in schools and libraries.
Tito’s unfavorable reputation in America developed for many reasons, only one of them being his declared Communist background. Even when he stood up to Stalin in 1948 and his expulsion from Cominform marked the beginning of the end of the monolithic Soviet Empire, he remained sort of an anathema here. His attempts to find a middle ground between the western and eastern economic systems and to create a peaceful neutral corridor between the Eastern and Western Cold War blocks, deserved at least some praise for effort. He was a better asset to America than he was getting credit for.
The truth of the matter is that Tito’s enemies in America were wartime supporters of the enemies of the Allied forces in WWII, the Chetniks and the Ustashe. These groups opposed Tito on ideological grounds even though he led the successful patriotic war against the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia and effectively achieved unity and brotherhood of South Slavs. After his death, that unity was broken by narrow and suspect interests along an artificial religious divide.
The animosity towards Tito helped many escaped war criminals avoid deportation back to and trial in Yugoslavia. Principal among them was Andrija Artuković, interior minister of the Ante Pavelić quisling regime in Zagreb, responsible for the unspeakably cruel extermination of Serbs, Jews and gypsies in concentration camps throughout Croatia between 1941 and 1945. The outcry in the U.S. against Artuković's extradition from California, where he had been living, was based on his being an anti-Communist and a Roman Catholic at a time when Tito and the Vatican were at loggerheads over the wartime pro-Nazi activities of Archbishop Stepinac of Zagreb. American schools were even named for the Croat prelate who had blessed troops on their way to serve Hitler on the Eastern Front.
At the time, no moral outrage could trump anticommunism in America. Former Nazis were welcome, not only as builders of rockets for NASA but also as dubious sources of information against the Russians, former US allies now enemies in the Cold War. It wasn’t springtime in America then. Its moral leadership of the world had given way to a pragmatic "whatever works" in international as well as in domestic affairs. That is why this former foreigner maintains that this was the time when America’s beacon appeared to be dimming, as it began resorting to what was expedient rather than what was moral and ethical in international life.
Several wars later, America is struggling to regain its old glow as the nation among the nations. May it succeed.